Farmer and entrepreneur Tom Pearcy bought Dunnington lodge, a farm on the outskirts of York in the year 2005. He had opened his maze based visitor attraction nearby in 2002, and re-located to Dunnington lodge in 2007. Shortly after taking possession of the site a number of happenings around the farm had left Tom and his staff to wonder if the farm was haunted.
While open to the public in the summer, Tom had employed a security guard to keep an eye on the farm overnight, He regularly complained of sensing something was wrong, but he couldn't say what it was. On more than one occasion he said he could smell burning, although nothing could be found. Each year as the summer season approached an end, his reports became more exaggerated. He often said he heard strange animal noises coming from the maize field. Tom dismissed his reports as nonsense, and told him it was a farm, what did he expect?
The guard was adamant that they were not like any animals he had heard on a farm before, he claimed to have heard the noises of lions and elephants, as if they were somehow in anguish. Things came to a head in September of 2009, when Tom was making preparations for his daytime Halloween festival.
Tom had asked his team to dig some foundations for a new barn to be built, which was to house a family friendly haunted house. Shortly after starting the dig, the team started uncovering bones. Tom was not unduly worried, assuming it was the old burial pit for "fallen" stock that many farms used to have. As the team kept digging, they unearthed bones that were obviously not farm animals. Giant skulls with tusks, large skulls with savagely sharp teeth and claws were among the multitude of bones found. Tom saw no reason to stop digging, but decided he would do a bit of research on the farm that night when he got home.
As Tom started to search the net he could find nothing in any of the search terms he thought to use. He remembered that his solicitor was holding all the paperwork relating to the property in his strong room, so Tom resolved to call him the next day, and pick it up.
At 2am the following morning, Tom received a distraught call from his security guard. Tom could hardly make sense of him, and rushed to the farm from his home several miles away. By the time Tom got there the fire and ambulance crews were both in attendance. It would seem that the digger the team were using to dig the foundations had caught fire, and as the guard approached it with a fire extinguisher, the hydraulic tank had exploded, covering the guard in a scalding hot shower of corrosive liquid. The fire was quelled quickly, but the guard had suffered terrible burns. The following day Tom visited him in hospital, his face was badly burnt, and he had difficulty speaking. The look in his eyes was haunting, as if his sole was gone. All he could say was “it’s getting worse" and "stay away"
Later that day Tom collected the paperwork from the solicitors, and the horrible truth emerged. Within the papers were a number of old newspaper articles, diary pages and notes, the details of which were used to piece together the following harrowing story...
Travelling circuses were hugely popular in Victorian times. In the time of this tragic story, there were a number of circuses appearing in the same towns each year, and competition was fierce.
Charlie Tornees was the leader of a famous travelling circus troupe in the 1870’s. Charlie was a renowned innovator and some would say slightly off the wall character. He was known to have the most outrageous freak show as part of his circus, and some historians have said it was because of him that freak shows became taboo about this time and lost their popularity as his shows were taking things too far. Charlie was fascinated by the industrial revolution that was sweeping through Britain at this time, and he had become somewhat obsessed with what the future held for mankind at the time.
He had taken a talented young engineer and inventor under his wing, called Joseph Clement, whom he paid a large wage, and supplied him with all the materials he needed for his work. Charlie wanted him to create a new attraction for the circus, that would show people a glimpse of the future, but the cost of the project was ruining him.
The attraction contained steam powered machines of immense complexity, and was manned by staff in masks, as he believed that the air in the future would be so heavily polluted by smoke from the steam powered machines. Unfortunately the attraction only served to scare people rather than inspire them, and the crowds did not flock to see this new wonder, as Charlie had hoped.
By 1873 the circus was in deep financial trouble.
That summer he had taken his travelling circus all the way from London, via the Midlands, planning to perform his last show of the season on the Knavesmire in York in late October.
Tensions had been running high over the summer, ticket sales had been poor and the show had not taken as much money as Charlie needed. The showmen had not been paid for over a month when they played their last show of the year on the Knavesmire in York on October the 23rd 1873.
The circus desperately needed a place to pitch their winter camp on, and with no money to rent some land, Charlie’s treasured circus was in danger of disbanding.
Charlie was in a desperate situation. He did not like to stay with the circus troupe and had taken lodgings in the Olde Starre inn, on Stonegate in York. He went to the bar down stairs, where he came across a group of rowdy local’s playing cards, and thought fate must have sent him there.
The barman told Charlie that one of the group of gamblers was a local farmer, Leonard Dunnington, who regularly played cards there. The barman told Charlie that Leonard was an alcoholic gambling addict who regularly blew his modest income on cards and drink.
Charlie was a skilled illusionist and conjurer and often used these skills to cheat at cards. He asked to join the card game that the rather slow farmer Leonard was playing in. He used his sleight of hand to quickly get the better of Leonard and as the stakes rose Leonard was desperate to win his money back.
Soon he had no cash left, and asked Charlie if he could offer something else to keep him in the game. This was exactly what Charlie had hoped would happen, so Charlie suggested that Leonard could let the troupe set up their winter camp on his land as his stake. Leonard leapt at this suggestion, and agreed, sure that his luck would turn and he would get his money back.
Leonard Dunnington. (1871)
As sure as night follows day, Leonard’s losing streak continued, and the game ended with Charlie winning the right to use Leonard’s farm for the winter months. Leonard pushed the table over and stormed out of the pub. Thanks to his deception Charlie now had somewhere to take his troupe.
A dejected Leonard went home and dared not tell his wife what he had done, and the following day the troupe arrived at Dunnington lodge farm, on Elvington lane.
It was worse than Leonard could have imagined, there were countless horses towing trailers and caravans. Elephants, camels and all manner of wild animals. Midgets, freaks and clowns, jugglers and acrobats……it was as if a whole town had arrived and pitched camp on his land.
Part of the Tornees’ troupe on the road.
Leonard had no idea how big the travelling circus was. They erected the big top tent to house the animals over the winter, and soon the whole of Leonard’s farm was overrun with the troupe.
The farm was just less than 40 acres in total, and the circus was covering more than half of that area. Charlie had taken over the farm's blacksmith's shop for his engineering workshop, where Joseph could keep working on creating “future world” that he hoped would save him from ruin.
The “big top” tent.
After a week Leonard was at his wits end. He could not farm his land, and he was the laughing stock of his friends for making and losing such a huge bet. His wife was not speaking to him, and he was in a very low and desperate state of mind.
On the 31st of October he had reached his lowest ebb and was in his barn drowning his sorrows in whiskey. Corny the clown heard Leonard talking to himself inside the barn went inside and tried to console him, as he had suffered from the ruthless behaviour of his boss too.
Corny had a great dislike for Charlie after he had demoted him from the headline act in the show, replacing him with his new-fangled machines. Leonard and Corny shared the whiskey and Corny’s tongue was loosened enough to let Leonard know that Charlie had cheated him at cards in order to win his bet.
Leonard was furious and in his drunken stupor he grabbed a pitchfork from the rack and ran into the field to find Charlie. Corny tried to stop him, but Leonard was beside himself with rage, and stabbed Corny in the belly with his fork, leaving him writhing in agony on the floor. Corny would never recover from this injury.
The once great “Corny” the clown.
Leonard found Charlie strutting around his camp, and flew at him in a rage. The two fought and although Charlie was the bigger man, Leonard was armed with his blood stained pitchfork, and forced it into the ringmaster’s neck, leaving him to choke on his own blood. Leonard was not done yet, and in his drunken fury, he grabbed a flaming torch from outside one of the trailers, and threw it onto a pile of animal bedding, which quickly caught fire. The fire quickly spread through the collection of trailers, tents and caravans.
Leonard sat down, with his bottle of whisky, satisfied that he had exacted his revenge.
A picture taken in the early stages of the fire.
The animals were trapped in their cages as the straw bedding caught light, and many of the show's workers were killed as they tried to save them...
“Old grey” the largest bull elephant was spooked by the fire and pulled his leash stake from the ground, and ran straight through the tent where the “freak show” was housed, crushing many of the freaks inside. The tent was caught on his tusks, and it caught fire as he rampaged around the farm in panic.
“Old grey” and his handler taken 1872.
Many of the showmen ran to the farm buildings to try and find some safety from the horrific sight of an 8 tonne mammal that was now on fire. Old grey’s Indian handler “Ziame” also ran to the barns, but the elephant had seen him, and followed him looking for his help.
Ziame could see the elephant was beyond help, and ran into the brick barn and locked the doors. Old grey could not understand why his handler was abandoning him, and using all his strength his pushed his way into the barn, bringing the roof down on himself and all the showmen in there. The roof beams caught light from his burning flesh, and there he fell, taking many of the circus troupe with him.
The result of the night was devastating. There was little way in the Victorian days to combat fire, and most of the troupe had little choice but to stand by and watch as the circus and Dunnington lodge farm was destroyed. Leonard was found by the police the following morning hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse, still drunk, but full of remorse for what he had done.
Showmen’s wives observing the remains of the circus.
On that fateful night, 37 men, 12 women and 3 children lost their lives. Most of the animals perished, and the C.W. Tornees circus troupe never played again. Leonard Dunnington was charged with the murder of Corny and Charlie, and the manslaughter of all the others. The records show that a large burial pit was dug on the farm, where the animals were buried. The bodies of the circus team were also laid to rest in the same pit, as was the tradition of circus folk at the time.
Leonard was put to trial, and sentenced to death by hanging. He was taken to the “Tyburn” gallows at York’s castle prison on Saturday the 15th of November 1873 where he died alone, having been disowned by his wife and family. It is not known where his body was laid to rest!
The Tyburn gallows, circa 1870
It would seem that when Farmer, Tom Pearcy, disturbed the mass grave at Dunnington lodge, he awoke the spirits of the tormented soles that were buried there that October. And whilst the farm is peaceful and pleasant most of the year, every October the spirits now return to haunt the farm at night. Will you be brave enough to enter YORK MAZE HALLOWSCREAM ??!!